Peter Rose: Witness

Omen

The Throggs Neck Bridge was the first. We grew up a few blocks away, near 160th Street and 14th Avenue, outside Flushing, in Queens, so we had the great glory of watching it being built in the Fifties, near the swamp, before the apartments came along. To our eight-year old eyes it was a monumental undertaking, a myth. Later, when we were older, we spent a lot of time traipsing around the shoreline below. So it’s a long short story- how we got the idea to think about climbing the bridge, but one day we grappled up the hinges of the door on the transformer housing ( before they put up the barbed wire), legged up onto the coax power cables and duckwalked until we got to the catwalk that took us all the way out to the massive anchorage out in the river. We crawled up into a vast cathedral- like space, the bridge’s cables emerging from a roof above us, unbound and splayed, plunging into the anchorage floor several stories below. And then we’d go out the other side and climb up onto the suspension cable and take a deep breath and take that first step and move very deliberately and cautiously and quickly up to the top of the tower. The vertigo was overwhelming. You had to ignore your eyes and to concentrate on just putting one foot in front of the other. That was all you could manage. Total space. We usually hung out at the top for hours, exploring the laddered chambers that latticed the interior of the tower, savoring what would always be remembered as supremely triumphant moments, and then taking the internal elevator, if you can believe it, down to the roadway level, from which, if we were lucky, we might exit through an unlocked door. We once or twice got eyed by the cops while sauntering back on the roadway, but we usually timed it to avoid them and were never seriously hassled. We also managed to take a swim, afterwards, at dawn, in the pool that belonged to the private housing development at the base of the bridge. This was around 1965 or thereabouts, and we were maybe 17 or 18.

And then came a series of other explorations: the Whitestone Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Verrazano on a Fourth of July, the Golden Gate during a lunar eclipse in 1968, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay, the George Washington (where I glued a small circular mirror in 1987 so you could see it at sunset driving in from New Jersey if you looked up at the southwest face of the east tower), and the others. All very cool. But it was the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia that offered the omen.

I’m a filmmaker by profession. In 1990, I was commissioned to make a video installation about Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was an extraordinary man and I wanted to find a way to honor him. I had been up on the bridge on a number of surreptitious occasions, but I thought I would try to film a daylight ascent in order to celebrate the form of immortality that is available through language, through naming. I would call it “Ben Franklin Dreams of His Immortal Soul”

So I called the Delaware River Port Authority. I was told that under no circumstances would I be given permission to go up. I had burned them badly several years before by not using a safety harness during an approved shot (another story) and I wasn’t going to get any more favors from them. There was no precise process by which I came to the conclusive decision, but I found myself going to a supply place near the airport just to see if I could procure a safety harness and an attractive blue hardhat, in case I needed them. Just to check it out. Just to see if it could be done. In case I got the idea that I might want to go up there anyway.

That night, I called a friend and told him what I had been thinking about. He had just bought a new laser printer and thought it might be cool to try to make a letterhead, so he printed up something with the “Delaware River Bridge Commission” on it (a non-existent entity) and I wrote a phony letter of permission from a J.Harris Detweiler giving me leave to climb the bridge to shoot a video. It’s a very chatty letter. He urges me to take all due safety precautions, appreciates the assurances I have given, and at one point states that “we are very much looking forward to seeing the results of your efforts. Please use this letter as evidence of permission should the occasion arise”. It looked very credible and I was indeed quite pleased that I had apparently written a self-validating document!!!

It was only natural, then, that I found myself out at the bridge the next morning, at around 7:30 AM, in the fall of 1990. There was far more traffic than I had anticipated- however-somehow it had turned into rush hour. I had my hardhat, the safety belt, spare batteries, a shoulder brace, and a very heavy VHS video camera, and was just about to hop up on the cables when all of a sudden I heard a loudspeaker blasting from a police car that had just slowed down along the side of the road.
“You....up..... there ......down.......now.”

He repeated it, again, louder. Traffic was starting to slow. The voice was commanding, imperative, irresistible. I saw no alternative but to comply. I would have to do some very fast talking to get out of this, if that was at all possible now, but all unbidden, arising from some theatrical impulse over which I evidently had no control, I pulled out the letter from my backpack and started waving it in the air, thinking that if I could con him into thinking I had official approval just by waving the goddam piece of paper in the air maybe I’d be all right. Unfortunately, rather than waving me on, as I had hoped, he got out of the car- a small, slight skinny guy with a large megaphone, and climbed up towards me from the roadway on a nearby ladder.

We met and I showed him the letter. It would not now just be trespassing, or malicious mischief, or destruction of property that would be at issue. It would be something like forgery, impersonating an officer, federal prevarication in the first degree. I felt myself sliding over into unknown territory. I had no idea just exactly how this was going to go down.

There was a long pause.

“Nobody told me about this”, he says, after examining the paper for an enduring moment.

“Nobody told me about this, at all.”

I study him quickly and carefully. He seems embarassed. Could he have forgotten that they told him about this? Did they tell him? Or am I pulling his leg?

“Of course they didn’t tell you,” I say, “You’re the last one to find anything out, isn’t that right? Look, I know exactly how you feel. They put you in a bad position. Look, they just told me to show this letter if one of you guys had any questions and I guess it’s just typical that they didn’t tell anybody about it. I’m really sorry.” We’re now on the same side- we’re both just working men. I’ve got my job to do and he’s got his. And I’m only doing what “they” told me to do. It’s just a little mix-up. Everything’s OK.

There’s a brief beat, he reviews the letter, and then he offers me a farewell.

“Well you just be careful up there!”

“I sure will, ” I say, “Bye, now, and you take it easy..”

I try not to look back, to look like I know what I’m doing, but climbing these things is always quite terrifying, about as tangible an encounter with anxiety as one might want. Climbing back up onto the cables with all of the gear turns out to be quite a bit more taxing than I had imagined.

I figure I have six minutes before he talks to somebody back at headquarters. There’s going to be some heated conversation taking place back there and then they’re going to come looking for me and it’s going to get very messy. The cable is slippery- still moist from the night before- and as I start rushing up the swaying incline it seems to me that it is all getting much steeper than I had remembered. I’ve got quite a bit of height now. The city is opening up, the horizon expanding. There is something in my furthest field of view, up ahead, but I can’t look at it directly because the traffic is falling away below me now and the wind is starting to blow. I’ve got to make sure I’m holding the thin guywire at my waist, which is swaying, the whole thing is swaying, and the surface of the cable is getting slippery, and how long has it been since the cop left? Is that fog up ahead around the tower? What was that noise? Can I be seen from here? Am I going to get away with this? Is the camera running?

What had been only dimly glimpsed before now rushes into my vision. I come upon an immense peregrine falcon. It is perched on the handwire directly in front of me, preparing to attack or to lift off and soar above the roadway-I’m not sure which. I start thinking about hawks and mystery religion. I’m thinking about Ben Franklin’s soul. I look down and see my shadow projected onto the roadway below.

A cloud covers the sun. A boat honks in the harbor. A voice floats on the wind. A bird flies.

It is morning all noon.

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